Goodbye Maria Miller, hello Sajid Javid

Former culture secretary Maria Miller
Former culture secretary Maria Miller
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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This time last week Maria Miller was the culture secretary, glowing in the recent launch of the 14-18 NOW festival that was her brainchild, reputedly, and looking to hang on to her over-stuffed portfolio at least to the general election.

A week’s a long time… Now she’s political dust.

She had ticked several boxes for David Cameron when she was appointed 18 months ago to succeed Jeremy Hunt: elected in 2005, so no apparent baggage; a professional background (in advertising and PR) rather than a political wonk in the Miliband/Osborne mould; pugnacious; state educated; and the biggest tick of all, she was a woman.

Will she be missed? Not really, not by the culture corner of her lost empire. Culture secretaries are not appointed for their love of the arts, Miller wasn’t, neither has her successor been. She couldn’t be bothered to go to Derry~Londonderry for its year as City of Culture – not once in the whole year – and the traditional Christmas part for arts correspondents, a diary fixture since Virginia Bottomley’s day, didn’t happen. Although a reputed hard worker who burned the midnight oil over her red boxes, she was an underperformer in all her briefs and the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts found her guilty of the most egregious crime for a political, that of being boring.

Then she had a brainwave. The story goes that, sitting uneasily in cabinet, she had asked what was being done officially to mark the centenary of the First World War, and was met with awkward glances at the stuccoed ceiling and the blank defence secretary. She decided to take it on, held a hasty press conference at which she was flanked, rather bizarrely, by the communities secretary Eric Pickles, and announced that the Great War would be commemorated, not celebrated, through art. She took £10 million from the lottery funds of the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, appointed one of the project directors of the London 2012 Festival to put a programme together, and left it to the experts to double the money and commission the art.

But in comes Sajid Javid, so swiftly in place he might have been standing in the wings, possibly placed there by George Osborne, the rumour mill has it. His background is in banking, and he left his job as a director of Deutsche Bank in 2009, just as the credit crisis was tightening its grip, to pursue politics. Presumably, the gazillions he was earning will mean he doesn’t have to bother about claiming expenses, and the irony is that the seat he inherited in 2010 had been Julie Kirkbride’s, forced to resign because of an expenses malfunction.

Javid has no cultural background other than being a fan of Star Trek – never mind the first Muslim, is her the first Klingon toi get in a Cabinet? Miller is credited with getting the arts a fairly painless ride through the last Budget, where there was even a new set of tax breaks for theatre production and computer game designing on top of film production, but it seems likely that despite her plea to the arts sector to give her an economic case for the arts, she was pushing at an open door. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury, one Sajid Javid, may already have got the message. If so, there are hopes that the new Arts Council England spending negotiations might be more promising than has been feared, and that Javid will take his campaign into the general election with a bona fide “we aren’t philistines” badge in his Savile Row lapel. With just over a year to make his mark, he probably won’t have time to do much more.